The local challenge

The biggest challenge facing local news organizations today is figuring out how they can gather more and produce less. That is, how can they help other people produce, so the news organizations have something worth gathering?

After trying one of everything in hyperlocal, I’ve come to believe that this will happen only by combining those various models — so people can join in however they want to — and by answering the questions: How much news will members of the community create and share? What do they need to do that? What motivates them? How can local news organizations enable and encourage them?

Hyperlocal will not, I firmly believe, happen at one site. It will work only via networks: content, commercial, social. It will work by gathering, not producing.

But I still don’t know whether it will work. We need to do a lot of development and experimentation.

That’s why I’m sad to see the long-time-coming closing of Backfence — not just for the founders, who are smart people and friends, but because we’ll now hear hand-wringing about hyperlocal, just as we did when Dan Gillmor folded his local efforts. There were particular reasons behind the fate of each. Paul Farhi acknowledged that in this roundup of the state of hyperlocal efforts.

But Farhi, as most do, just talked about the fate of local sites. I think we need to look at local networks. No one can do it all. Newspapers can’t afford to cover everything. They never could but now they can afford to cover even less. TV and radio stations are covering next to nothing themselves; they have no idea how to get very local. New local ventures, as Backfence proves and Fahri points out, are finding it tough to do it themselves. Individual bloggers don’t pretend to do it all and need help to get their stuff found and get revenue. And today there just isn’t enough stuff from all these players together to add up to a critical mass of coverage for almost every town and neighborhood in the country. We need more but we don’t yet know how to get it. I believe we can figure this out. But we have to try.

That, to me, is the state of hyperlocal. The work has barely begun.

I think we need a combination of platforms. Everything will not happen in one place; that is why, in my view, both newspaper local sites and independent, stand-alone ventures like Backfence haven’t worked. That is why lone bloggers have trouble making a business of it. They have to work together. They have to become networks that organize, enable, and monetize.

Newspapers will produce journalism, I hope. Individual bloggers will produce reporting, I hope. And people who are doing neither will want to contribute what they know to this pool of information without having to have their own sites. So we will need a combination of models and platforms: Newspapers will have local sites. Local bloggers will do their own thing. There is a need for group sites like Backfence or GoSkokie, which helped inspire it, where people can contribute. There is a need to organize all this; I hope can do that (disclosure: I’m an adviser). There is a need to support all this financially; that is where newspapers can play a crucial role, setting up ad networks and infrastructure. And then we still need to see what will motivate people to contribute what they know: money, ego, influence, what? And we need to see what help people need: technology, attention, training, support.

But nobody can do it alone. That is the real lesson of hyperlocal thus far.

I hope we don’t get discouraged when some efforts die. (And I hope we discuss this and commit to new experiments at our meeting at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on networked journalism as part of my News Innovation Project in early October.)

  • Hey Jeff:

    I’m not going to pretend we have all the answers. (Ah, who am I kidding– that’s what I’ve been doing for two years now!)

    I think you’re right about the network. In addition to the obvious user comments and user-submitted content, I think this is a big part of our answer:

    Add effortless filtering to that:

    But the hard thing is that local is always about people more than tools. (Even if sometimes that seems redundant.) It doesn’t take an army, but it is high touch if you want to gain enough reach and frequency to do more than Adwords. That’s why I’m inherently skeptical of any model that is one big national-local site versus one community at a time…

  • Robert

    Paul Farhi, yes?

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  • The problem on the newspaper side is that their idea of increased attention to local news didn’t start from the user’s needs as the given, but from newsroom staffing levels as they were prior to the supposed wake-up call: local, local, local.

    If what users want is truly local news (in my case, when is the renovation of Washington Square Park going to begin, how long will it last, and where are my kids going to play while it’s going on…?) then dropping your book columnist, eliminating movie reviews, and re-assigning all your national desk people to local news doesn’t even come close to getting you there, even though it may seem like a radical re-structuring when you start with newsroom staffing as the given.

    Even assigning a single reporter to every one of the towns in a given circulation area is beyond the reach of most newspapers, but one reporter per town isn’t going to give people hyper-local news. That’s why Jeff is right that only overlapping systems working together can get this done.

  • I agree with Jay. Of course, I just about always agree with Jay. I’m starting to believe that hyperlocal is the inevitable future of the metro news outlets that survive, but it is also not ripe. Once we have significant convergence of news onto the Internet, and all our metro papers and local TV stations are going to be forced to compete with everyone else online, most are not going to be able to pull it off. Advertisers who still need to sell their cars, casinos, tires, fashions, and restaurants are going to need to find places to put their money, and hyperlocal will be born “overnight.” The time to experiment is now. The time to make it work financially and traffic-wise is…who knows when? (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

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  • “but one reporter per town isn’t going to give people hyper-local news.”

    While I agree with your concepts Jay, in practice, I disagree with that statement, at least unqualified. One reporter per town, or five towns can give people hyper-local news, if we all let go of our Woodward & Bernstein fantasies of what is news.

    Our site has neighborhood maps of no more than a few miles radius with stories, events and garage sales plotted. Part of the way we do that is by mining city and school district sites for news in areas where there are no content partners or bloggers to work with.

    It ain’t glamorous, but if there’s a temporary road closing near you, it’s news. And you can’t wait/depend on someone in that community to blog it.

    Where it gets cool though is that these trivial, government-supplied neighborhood stories, mixed with a little search engine mojo, become breadcrumbs for folks who come in the door, comment on what you got right/wrong, and then start contributing regularly with real narrative reporting.

    I won’t kid you — that’s a slow process. And it takes a real farmer to cultivate that kind of participation. The seeding with “release” type news has to continue, because without a flow of content, there’s no frequency and without frequency, today’s item written by a member of the community won’t be read or responded to…Meaning they won’t be repeat contributors and you won’t have a business.

  • Right, Mike: but then you are right into what Jeff said: it’s going to take a combination of systems.

    Anyway, I think you are on the right track for sure.

    Here’s PressThink’s review of Backfence from 05, which got at some of these issues:

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  • I think there are a few things that backfence, outsidein and others are missing in their hyper-local focus.

    First, there doesn’t appear to be enough interest at the neighborhood level to produce much user-generated content in the vast majority of places. For the moment, hyper local is a tad too local to succeed — even when you’re gathering in the content from many sources.

    Second, to some extent the online community and the geographic community that co-exist in the real world may be different enough that a) the one can’t/won’t produce the right content for the other and b) the interest of the online community are just as much in learning about their digital neighbors as in learning about what street/school/fire issues will impact them.

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  • Rex

    I alluded to the demise of Backfence in an interview I recently did. My general point was that so many of these hyperlocal sites lack one key component: sexiness. It’s like they think you can throw up a “submit a story!” button and everything magically happens. No one is stating the obvious: too many of these hyperlocal sites are boring.

    (I sold the hyperlocal site that I started, and it’s still kicking quite nicely.)

  • I think one of the biggest issues has been the lack of local advertising networks to support hyperlocal news organizations. While a major news organization can sell its ad inventory directly and via premium networks, this doesn’t make sense for hyperlocal outlets; it’s usually inefficient to sell ads directly for a single local web property with its limited reach and narrower focus. Yes – they can tap into existing web ad networks, but the full potential of local advertising involves selling geographically-targeted, local ads often placed by local businesses. Once the ability exists for an advertiser to buy across multiple local outlets, things will change quickly. Even mom-and-pop shops will learn to buy a small number of valuable impressions or clicks across multiple local outlets.

    The good news is that this will be a reality soon. Demand for such a network is growing as hyperlocal and mobile media outlets – news and otherwise – come online. You can see it coming through Google, Yahoo, and even Nokia’s recent announcements and acquisitions and I speak to small companies every week who are going after the opportunity in innovative ways.

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  • I think one of the biggest issues has been the lack of local advertising networks to support hyperlocal news organizations.

    Spot on.

    So we built our own.

    And now we’re finding a market for just that type of structure – ie a hyper-local adify, doubleclick, etc – BUT with all the local trust, recognition etc that comes with having that run and serviced by the same, small town ad man that was working the local newspaper beat for 25 years.

    And now, my pal who runs one of the best restaurants in the city wants to embed advertising buttons/banners from his suppliers around his restaurant site with our ad network in support.

    And we’ve got interest from the local music/club listings site; the University concert site, etc… local answer to a local need….

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  • Mike Orren is spot on in talking about the sustainability of local news … whatever the beat, there’s got to be the consumer and advertising audience there to support them.

    After having been on this rollercoaster ride of exuberance and despair for now 19 years, dating back to the early days of CD-ROM and interactive TV, we are closer than ever to the networked world that Jeff writes so eloquently about…but it’s not going to be exactly what we expect. It’s not about delivering content, it’s about having access — real, sustained access — to sources whose reputations are/will be built up over time. As we migrate from daily to real-time publications, perhaps the business model becomes about who can make the connections to make things happen, not who can write the story about what just happened.

    Facebook, by opening up its API, is enabling a thousand flowers to bloom.

    (…I do wonder, though, about the role of news bureaus in this vague new world. IMHO, the closure of international news bureaus leads to fewer resources who know the lay of the land and the backgrounds of the local personalities…and without their presence, and those like them, I feel we are losing the multiple points of perspective that lead to better investigative journalism. But that’s a point for another day.)

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  • hi there

    i would agree with most of the sentiments in this post. In this Modern day it is difficult to judge exactly where hard copy is going to be in the 10 years.

    The Internet has had a dramatic effect on all forms of news print and advertising media,. In some cases it has enhanced the harad copy whilst in others it has had a dramit negative effect.

    So where is all this leading ?

    dont know, but lets stick around and see in ten years time

    Geoff Lord

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